Biblical Reception, 4

A New Hollywood Moses: On the Spectacle and Reception of "Exodus: Gods and Kings"

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Editor(s): 
David Tollerton
Biblical Reception
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , December
     2016.
     224 pages.
     $102.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780567672322.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

David Tollerton's A New Hollywood Moses: On the Spectacle and Reception of Exodus: Gods and Kings is a collection of eight essays, and an introduction, analyzing Ridley Scott's 2014 20th Century Fox film Exodus: Gods and Kings.

Scott's Exodus received mixed reviews from critics, who nevertheless conceded the movie's great visuals. The consensus here, likewise, seems mixed; though these essays focus on the movie's script—its plot and narrative—market reception, and social and historical context much more than upon formalist or technical criticism. While some attention is paid to genre and viewer-reception critique, they do not heavily engage formal film theory or film production.

Tollerton opens the volume with an introductory essay that establishes context for Scott's film, and scholarship on the Bible and film. His review covers the contemporary moment of scholarship very nicely, though it would benefit from augmentation by older works or a work on film from outside the realm of biblical studies. This current interest in film by biblical scholars parallels the interest in digital media, film, and popular culture in religious studies, and the humanities as a whole. The current American "revival" of the genre of biblical epic—like the return of the western or the abundance of remakes—is part of a broader Hollywood nostalgia. Scholarly attention to mass or "pop" culture—particularly less critically acclaimed expressions—has been a central topic in cultural studies since the Birmingham Centre. Broader and more penetrating engagement with conversations occurring outside the guild of biblical studies would enrich this volume.

The essays have a clear "cluster" of questions and concerns: the nature of Scott's God/Malak character, the connections between violence and religion, Scott's celebration of spectacle while eschewing the supernatural, the intersection of film and public ideology, and biblical and national mythology. Several authors mention controversies surrounding the film: the “whitewashing” of the cast—and Scott's dismissive anti-Arab response; Christian Bale's assessment of Moses as "psychotic" and—to the Egyptians—a terrorist.

Matthew Collins examines Scott's "God"/Divine character. Scott decided on a young boy who only Moses can see or hear. The movie is ambivalent about whether Moses sees and speaks with God, or with a messenger—Scott credits this character as "Malak": Hebrew for "messenger" or "angel". Collins argues that this character's capriciousness and ambivalence, inadvertently, mimics biblical narrative. J. Cheryl Exum continues this theme, noting that the movie's violence and spectacle, likewise, comport to the spirit—if not letter—of Exodus. Jon Morgan argues that ambivalent treatment of the plague scenes (visually stirring, both supernatural and not, violent to the core) reveals ambivalence in biblical text, and perhaps religion itself, about the intersection of religion and violence.

David Shepherd offers a survey of "Moses movies" from the silent to the modern era, noting how each reflected its social context in its visuality. Michelle Fletcher takes the theme of visuality—via the movie poster—to argue that Scott uses visual references to address post-9/11 American concerns, wondering aloud if this movie is "bible-epic" or "disaster apocalypse." Samuel Tongue offers a very fine essay that draws from film criticism on "the effect," particularly by Roland Barthes (On CinemaScope) and Samuel Weber. Tongue argues that the Bible itself becomes an effect. Catherine Wheatley follows with an equally fine argument that Exodus: Gods and Kings is about national identity, and the framing of American political sense. Tollerton returns in a final essay to discuss international response to the movie—Egypt banning it as "too Zionist."

In general, A New Hollywood Moses is a very readable and even collection of essays that well-demonstrate the present quality of conversation in the bible and film, with suggestions of where to further that conversation in a profitable dialog with other fields in the humanities.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Robert Paul Seesengood is associate professor of religious studies at Albright College.

Date of Review: 
June 6, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David Tollerton is Lecturer in Jewish Studies and Contemporary Biblical Cultures at the University of Exeter, UK.

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